Get your optimism from the past

When we think about a “pristine” untouched ecosystem we often have a single, preconceived image in mind. It could be a grassland with thousands of bison, a thick tropical forest, or a coral reef teeming with fish and sharks. These places certainly existed, and in many cases are now lost or replaced by alternatives, but there has always been variation and that variation must have contributed to the rich mosaic of life.

It is this variation that we propose can help conservation, but first we need to describe it. If we can describe it we can do a better job of placing modern ecosystems into context. In this paper, published in Conservation Biology, BaselineCaribbean members discuss our ideas of how the fossil record can be used to redefine what should be considered “pristine” and the positive benefits of doing so for conservation.

Open Access available

O’Dea, A., M. Dillon, E., H. Altieri, A. and L. Lepore, M. (2017), Look to the past for an optimistic future. Conservation Biology. doi:10.1111/cobi.12997




New expedition: Curaçao February 20th


The Baseline Caribbean team is gearing up for another expedition, this time to the sparkling, cerulean seas of the Netherlands Antilles in the Southern Caribbean.

Reefs on these Dutch Islands are in relatively good shape when compared to the rest of the Caribbean. But what were they like in the past?

Anecdotal evidence suggests that sharks were once abundant around these islands, yet empirical data are desperately needed to guide management. Reef fish communities are overfished today, but by how much? When did coral communities begin to deteriorate, and did it depend on their proximity to historical settlements?

To get at these questions and more, we plan to collect nearly a ton of sediment from modern and fossil reefs along the southwest coast of Curaçao. We also hope to get the chance to explore Klein Curaçao — a 1.7-square-kilometer uninhabited island just southeast of its big sister and namesake.

Instead of reading about the results in a stale journal in two years’ time, experience science in action. Beginning February the 20th, join us with daily posts, photos, and short videos from the field on the Baseline Caribbean science blog.

This expedition builds on our previous exploits in Panama, Belize and the Dominican Republic. We see familiar faces return: Erin Dillon (who recently hightailed it to the McCauley Lab), faithful malacologist Felix Rodriguez and ring-leader Aaron O’Dea. We are also joined by some fresh blood in the form of fish ecologist and evolutionary biologist Michele Pierotti and STRI videographer extraordinaire  Ana Endara.

A huge Thank You to our supporters who will make it possible: The Caribbean Research and Management of Biodiversity field station (CARMABI) who kindly gave us a Research Prize, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), and YOU! – the generous donors who contributed to our crowd-funding campaign. Stay tuned…!





Nicte-Ha’s farewell!

Earlier this year, the coral project was set. The research question was clear, the samples – the key to the question – were at hand, and I was making good progress. But the coral team had only one member: me. This was not great because I love working in teams and to learn new stuff. How best to learn if not by teaching?

Potential interns had shown interest in working in the lab. Not always, however, this works well for the intern or researchers. It is hard to find a good match. Then, a young woman emailed Aaron. Shortly after, she was standing in front of us. “Gosh! Nicte-Ha is very determined”, I initially thought. And she was.

On day one, Nicte-Ha said that she aimed to find a research job in Bocas del Toro. We were sitting hundreds of kilometers from Bocas, but for Nicte-Ha, we were pretty close. A few hours after she analyzed the last sample in our lab, she headed off to Bocas del Toro.

What do you think happened between day one and the last sample she analyzed? Success! That is what determined people consistently get. Just to name a few of her achievements, Nicte-Ha learned fast and taught others, analyzed hundreds of kilograms of coral samples, developed and presented a poster at a conference, and was actively engaged in the daily life and discussions of our scientific community. More than anything, she got a special place in everyone’s heart.

Thank you, Nicte-Ha. Today we see you leave, moving in the direction you chose. We are happy and proud.


Nicte-Ha Muñoz presents a poster in APANAC.

Great news from the coral team!

The coral team has great news to share: one reef from Bocas del Toro may be a bright spot! This blog explains what a bright spot is, why it is important and where we may have found one.

Coral reefs are declining worldwide but not all of them are in bad shape. Bright spots are, among coral reefs, those reefs that are in better condition than expected given the environmental and socio-economic conditions they are exposed to (Cinner et al. 2016). If we can learn why bright spots are different, we may be able to improve degraded reefs. But first we need to identify bright spots! And we may have found one in Bocas del Toro, Panama.

To do this, we became time-travelers! We compared (fossil) reef corals that lived in Bocas del Toro around 7 000 years ago (figure 1a) with (subrecent) reefs corals that have lived here over the past few decades (figure 1b). We measured the amount and type of reef corals both in fossil and subrecent reefs. From this data we are learning how reefs changed since substantial human impact began.

Our preliminary results show that one reef from Bocas del Toro, Punta Caracol, is a potential bright spot. Compared to other subrecent reefs, Punta Caracol is exposed to similar environmental conditions and human pressures but it seems substantially healthier. In fact, it is almost identical to the pristine reefs that lived in the region 7 000 years ago.


Figure 1. When fossil (a) and modern (b) reefs from Bocas del Toro are compared, Punta Caracol is outstanding, likely a bright spot. It is healthier than other subrecent reefs and similar to pristine reefs that lived in Bocas 7 000 years ago.

Our next step is to refine this exciting finding. We plan to precisely describe how Punta Caracol is special. For example,

  • What type of corals drive the difference between Punta Caracol and other subrecent reefs?
  • What are the key similarities between Punta Caracol and the pristine reefs that lived in Bocas del Toro 7 000 years ago?

We will let you know what we find out!

It’s Melisa’s farewell

Today we say farewell to Melisa! Because she has done great and has big plans ahead, we want to celebrate.


Melisa never gets stuck (except this one time)!

During her three-month internship, Melisa was outstandingly productive. For example, she (a) identified over a hundred kilograms of tiny coral fragments, (b) planned a fieldtrip, (c) reviewed literature, (d) developed a guide and a reference collection to identify coral skeletons, (e) wrote an abstract and produced a conference poster, (f) presented interesting topics at multiple lab meetings, (g) attended to multiple scientific seminars and (h) organized the research collection of the coral team. And most importantly, Melisa connected personally with everyone she met. She is easy going, kind, and respectful.

But the semester starts soon so she has to go back to college. For her farewell, we gave Melisa a little present and took her out to lunch. The restaurant we chose was Napoli’s Restaurant and Pizzeria, a place that has hosted the special occasions of the O’Dea lab and its scientific family, including the legendary Tony Coats and Jeremy Jackson, over decades.

The coral team, the O’Dea lab and many others at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute will remember and miss her a lot. Because she is smart, positive and hard working, Melisa will never hit a roof. So I am confident this is only the beginning of something even bigger and better.

Melisa, we wish you the best because you deserve it!

The coral team kicks-off!

What did reefs look like before humans?. To answer this question, I joined the Baseline Caribbean project of Aaron O’Dea and his lab.

Reef corals are very important, for example, because they build “homes” for multiple reef critters—including delicious fish! Reefs also protect our coasts against storms and boost the tourism industry. Despite their importance, we know little about how reefs vary naturally and how they respond to human impact. This makes it difficult to conserve coral reefs and to sustain fisheries and tourism, among other valuable services.

To understand and manage coral reefs better, we project to investigate communities of reef corals from Bocas del Toro, Panama. Here, we had opportunistic access to sample pristine communities of reef corals—communities that lived approximately 7,000 yeas ago and, therefore, never experienced human impact. That opportunity was brief, during construction work (figure 1.a). Soon after sampling (figure 1.b-e), that fossil treasure was transformed into a lake and lost forever. Fortunately, our samples will provide robust evidence of what pristine coral reefs should look like. We will compare modern reefs with the pristine reference from the same region (figure 1.f).


Figure 1. Sampling fossil (a-e) and modern (f) reefs in Bocas del Toro, Panama.

Our project has an excellent home and family – its home is The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, which offers exceptional support including internships and fellowships. Its family are a bunch of people, rich in ideas and energy, and willing to work hard to make this world a better place. We are: Nicte-Ha Muñoz (intern, post-graduate student), Melisa Chan (intern, undergraduate student), Felix Rodriguez (staff research assistant), Andrew Altieri (co-advisor, staff scientist), Aaron O’Dea (principal investigator, staff scientist) and me, Mauro Lepore (the person to blame, fellow scientist). To learn more about us visit Aaron’s and Andrew’s websites.

Are you convinced that we have great intentions, ideas and team? If so, come back to this website; we´ll keep you posted!

A guide to collecting a bulk sample

A bulk sample simply means that there is as little bias as possible during collection. Instead of picking the most beautiful or well-preserved fossils from an outcrop, we take whole lumps of the sediment, which are then transported whole back to the lab in Panama for washing, picking and identification of the fossils. Only then will the bounty they yield be revealed.

This means we have to collect massive amounts of rock and sediment, but it’s the only way to provide a measure of the abundance of the many different organisms in an ecological way. This ecological approach to paleontology is critical for we want to know what the structure of the whole ecosystem was like.

Sped up from 15 minutes to a minute and a half, the video shows Erin and Aaron collecting a 10kg bulk sample of 7000 year old reef sediments in the Enriquillo basin. All the coral, mollusks, fish otoliths, sponge spicules and shark dermal denticles will be picked from these to help reconstruct the ecosystems of the past.

Four fossil reefs done

The preservation of the coral reef fauna, which includes sea urchins, bryozoans, bivalves and gastropods, among others — and the sheer extension of the reefs here in Enriquillo — amaze us each time we walk one of these canyons.

Each canyon shares a similar aspect with the reef crest at the upper reaches, which is predominantly Acropora cervicornis (staghorn coral) in life position, i.e. it was frozen in the fossil record in the exact position it had 6,000 years ago when it was surrounded by seawater. The reef section then drops down into fore-reef habitats comprised of many coral heads dominated by Siderastrea, Diploria and lots of Orbicella. The Siderastrea and Orbicella reveal an interesting draping growth pattern (see photo) which has been suggested to have been caused by periodic high sedimentation from erosion of the mountains that surround the Lake. These sediments smothered the corals causing partial mortality.

Despite living in this Fossil shots (7 of 12) 1environment of high sedimentation, these corals were able to not only deal with the conditions, but clearly thrive. Many of the Orbicella and Siderastrea colonies underwent hundreds of these events and continued to regenerate and build massive corals, like this example. Why did these corals thrive in these conditions while Caribbean corals fail under similar high rates of sedimentation? To me, that’s a hugely interesting question.

At each site we samples the A. cervicornis reef crest and the deeper fore-reef as distinct habitats that are easy to distinguish. So far we have sampled four sites: Cañada Honda, Las Clavellinas and Los Rios on the north of the lake, and our first site Cañon de Buho on the southern edge. We have collected 30 large bulk bags at 10kg each and 60 small bulk bags at 1kg each. The truck is getting weighed down!

The large bulk samples will be split into two size fractions – sediments greater than 2mm, which we will use to reconstruct the coral, mollusk and urchin faunas, while the sand fraction smaller than 2mm will be digested with large quantities of acetic acid, which will remove the calcium carbonate, hopefully leaving behind the shark dermal denticles which are generally lass than a millimetre in size. STRI fellow Erin Dillon will tell you more about that soon.

One of the two smaller bulk bags will be used to pick the otoliths (ear bones) of reef fish and the other will be used for the extraction of the sponge spicules and sediment analysis, to find out how big were the grains and how much organic material and carbonate they contain. With all these environmental and faunal components of the reef we hope we will be able to reconstruct many of the important aspects of these 7,000 year old Caribbean reefs to quantitively describe what “pristine” Caribbean reefs were really like.

Soon we will leave Enriquillo and start collecting sediments on modern reefs around the Dominican Republic to make a direct comparison with what once was with what exists today. I fear the modern may be somewhat depressing when we compare with what we have.

Download the google earth file of our tracks and sampling sites here.